Music In Conversation
ALEX WATERMAN with Timothy Nassau
Vidas Perfectas, a new Spanish-language production of Perfect Lives, Robert Ashley’s visionary television opera from 1983, will premiere December 15 through 17 at Brooklyn’s Irondale Theater, with performances of the first three episodes of seven. It will take three years to complete the adaptation, which will travel to Ballroom Marfa in Texas, where the next two episodes will be performed and filming for tv will begin. From there, its future is uncertain. Timothy Nassau discussed Vidas Perfectas via e-mail with its director, composer, and musicologist Alex Waterman.
Timothy Nassau (Rail): How did Vidas Perfectas come into being?
Alex Waterman: Zach Layton, Robert Ashley, and I applied for a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 2009 to present a performance version of Perfect Lives as part of the Essential Repertoire series that Layton produces. When we applied we had it in our minds that we would just perform the music in a chamber music setting with either Robert Ashley reading, or one of his band members.
There was some time between applying and hearing back from the N.E.A., and I think we all assumed that we wouldn’t hear back. When we got the notice that we had received a grant for $5,000, it was both a blessing and a burden. It was enough to pay for some rehearsals and an informal performance that would scratch the surface, but then I realized that I wanted to go deeper than that. I went to talk to Bob and he said, “Well, I think maybe you shouldn’t be selling a used car, maybe you should build a new one.” He pulled a copy of the Spanish translation of Perfect Lives off the shelves and said, “Why don’t you do this?”
Rail: That made sense to you?
Waterman: The wheels started turning because I had been researching two artist collectives from the 1960s, the ONCE Group from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the Zaj Group from Madrid, Spain. These two groups were working without knowledge of one another but came up with some of the most brilliant and off-the-wall musical ideas, things that most people wouldn’t consider music. In the 1970s after the ONCE group had disbanded, John Cage asked his assistant at the time, Mimi Johnson, to ask Robert Ashley to program some concerts for the Zaj group in California.
When their worlds finally collided (Ashley and Zaj) it was like a wormhole opened up. Bob’s life was changed and I think his important works, from Automatic Writing onwards, came out of a feeling of reconnecting to the spirit of what had happened in the ONCE years, through seeing the Zaj group perform. In California he had stopped writing music for a while because everything he wanted to do seemed impossible. He was tired out from the intensity of the ONCE years and the turbulent ’60s in general. Zaj came and performed and I think it was one of the things that brought him out of a fairly dark period and got him back to work as a composer.
When I took the copy of Vidas Perfectas from Bob Ashley, I immediately thought about the character of Raoul de Noget and how he is a “seedy old man,” and I thought that Juan Hidalgo (from Zaj), who is Bob’s age, would be a perfect choice for the part. It would connect those two worlds in such an amazing way.
Rail: But that didn’t end up happening.
Waterman: Bob had another idea, and that was to have my wife, Elisa Santiago, play the part. He had seen her perform in one of my radio plays at a loft downtown and was captivated with her presence. I asked Elisa, but she would only agree to be in the chorus. Then I found Ned Sublette and everything fell into place. Here was a gringo from Texas who was bilingual, had worked with Bob in the past, and was a scholar of Cuban and Latino music as well as Colonial American history in general. A perfect fit if there ever was one. I saw Ned perform at ISSUE Project Room, then months later Zach Layton suggested I contact him about finding the lead singer. All of a sudden it clicked. I wrote to Ned and asked him to be the lead. He wrote back and said that his jaw had dropped from amazement. Ned was a card flipper for the teleprompters in some of the early performances of Perfect Lives. He knew that text inside and out. He never thought that one day he would actually be singing the role of Raoul.
Rail: And how did you fill the other roles?
Waterman: It was all a series of amazing coincidences.
Elisa Santiago and I met 11 years ago in Amsterdam, and we’ve been together since. Her work as a dancer and performance artist has been a great inspiration to me, and she is a native speaker who has a beautiful voice and just happens to be a costume designer for films. It’s a perfect combination of talents.
Abraham Gomez-Delgado was the last person to be cast. My good friend David Watson was up at Omi this summer and met him. He wrote to me and said, “You might wanna check this guy out for the part.” I drove upstate to see the concert they gave at the end of the residency, and after seeing what he could do (playing a guitar/bass and drum kit while singing) I hired him on the spot.
Producer and sound designer Peter Gordon and I played together in the tribute to Arthur Russell at the Kitchen a few years back and started a conversation that just didn’t stop. Peter was of course the original music producer for Perfect Lives back in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Rail: Is anything changing besides the cast and the language?
Waterman: I decided that if we were doing something new, then we should build the opera from the ground up. What happens to these “songs from the Corn Belt” when they are sung in Spanish? What does it mean to remake an American avant-garde classic and present it in Spanish? What does it mean in the present political climate? All these things started to accumulate in my mind, and I decided to try to put on a full production of the opera.
We are making entirely new music, new staging, new film, new costumes, new everything! Robert Ashley is involved only insofar as we get together to talk over the directions that I’m taking the piece in. Otherwise, he has given me the piece and told me to just take it and run. I think this generosity is essential to how the piece is made.
Rail: With technology it’s become incredibly easy to subtitle live opera, so why not do that? Why translate an opera today?
Waterman: Translation into another sung language and subtitling have nothing to do with one another in terms of what is really important, like: How does the text change the way the piece is sung? European opera is all about the long vowel sounds and American songs are about the rhythm of the consonants and the way they come down on those nasals.
Rail: You mean there is an inherent musicality in language that transcends translation of the content.
Waterman: To translate Perfect Lives into Spanish is to change the music of the story-telling. I am on the fence about whether or not to subtitle at all! I think that these stories are told by the music (which the words are just one part of). I don’t think we need the subtitles if we are listening to the music, but my producers don’t always agree. In the end, we will be putting the text in English and in Spanish on two screens on either side of the stage.
Rail: It’s neat to think that back in the ’80s Ashley’s piece in some ways anticipated the needs of our present plurivocal society. Has television taken an Ashleyian direction since then?
Waterman: I think the innovations in video techniques and staging, the music, the whole thing Perfect Lives brought to the world, has made an enormous impact on TV and video art. From MTV to David Lynch, to Spalding Gray, to Laurie Anderson, and even Ryan Trecartin. Robert Ashley’s work has had an influence whether we knew it or not. I certainly felt that when I saw the videos for the first time in the early ’90s, that it felt like something I had dreamt before. At that time, I wasn’t sure that it was a place that I really wanted to go back to. It made me uncomfortable, but the thing about discomfort is that it is really powerful as a motivator.
Rail: Did you ever consider adapting Perfect Lives on two fronts and making an Internet opera?
Waterman: Internet opera has no interest to me. Television was designed with two viewers in mind. It’s about sitting together in front of the tube. Internet is solitary, for the most part. We are told that it’s a “social media,” that we are part of a “community,” but if someone disturbs me while I am writing this e-mail I am likely to not be too pleased. I find I spend much more time alone than 10 years ago. I am drowning in communication, but the communicating keeps me at my desk most of the day. It’s an elaborate form of distraction that has (up until Occupy Wall Street, I would say) largely failed in bringing people together in a meaningful way in terms of physical gathering.
Rail: You can’t think the Internet is all bad, though.
Waterman: I think YouTube has been wonderful for ending most parties. You go over to a friend’s house, you eat dinner, you talk, you get a little drunk, and then at the end of the night you’re watching a dog that only has two legs and walks standing up on them like we do, or a guy from Indonesia with tree trunks for hands, or a sneezing panda bear, and so on. I think it’s funny, I enjoy sharing things online, but I still think that TV is way better. And when I think “TV” I think HBO. Television has made better films than Hollywood in the last 10 years. Internet has a long ways to go. A television attached to a keyboard (a computer, in other words) is like eating from a dish while chained to your seat. You are constantly reminded of your banal and laborious existence as a continual transmitter of information. When you just have a remote and some popcorn or a drink in your hand, you are truly tuning in and turning off. I think we need more of that in our lives.
Rail: Do you think opera can provide that feeling when it’s not televised? Or does putting opera on TV fundamentally alter a work’s relationship to that genre?
Waterman: I was talking with Ned Sublette about this. I think it’s too bad that Perfect Lives is called an opera, in some ways. Opera is something we associate with the wealthy, the corporate sponsors, Lincoln Center (the Koch Brothers and the Tea Party), and disastrous urban planning. Let’s also remember the 1980s when as a “genre” it could be used to an artist’s advantage when asking for money for a project. That is all totally irrelevant now. I don’t think that opera is a musical form that people rally behind for the form’s sake nowadays. Not unless wasting millions of dollars in order to produce a piece that only the rich or rich-obsessed public (think back to the 2000s) are interested in is considered culturally relevant. Ashley’s operas have nothing to do with that whole set of concerns, of course.
Rail: But you still think they are operas.
Waterman: Ashley’s operas are not made for opera houses, and his definition of opera is so wonderfully contradictory for most people that it has almost lost its meaning as a word. When put into the context of his work, though, it makes perfect sense why they are still “operas.” I think we are living in a moment of such contradiction, confusion, and multiplicity of viewpoints that putting on an American opera in Spanish makes perfect sense. It’s American because it’s in Spanish, and it’s opera because it is about telling stories musically. These are things that I genuinely think we do need! We need to be told a good story and we need to reinvent who we think we’ve been all these years. Call it opera, or call it a wake-up call. I think that’s what Vidas Perfectas is.